Congress should double Pell Grant, help make college affordable for all

UC AFFAIRS: Amid rising tuition and economic fallout of pandemic, higher education students need help

Illustration of a student reaching for a graduation cap far out of reach on top of stacks of dollar bills
Rachel Lee/Staff

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This week, the University of California joined the UC Student Association in urging Congress to double the Pell Grant, a need-based financial aid program awarded to low-income college students.

In the face of a mounting student debt crisis disproportionately burdening students of color — and amid an economic recession that may hinder thousands of students from enrolling in higher education entirely — the federal government must raise the Pell Grant maximum. And fast.

As opposed to student loans, the Pell Grant comes with no strings attached, making it a crucial source of funding for millions of undergraduate students in the United States. And yet, for the past three decades, the purchasing power of the grant has dropped steadily, from about 75% of attendance costs in 1975 to less than 30% today.

Simultaneously, tuition has skyrocketed nationwide. In 2014, the UC Board of Regents voted to increase student fees incrementally over five years, and recent talks of tuition hikes continued through the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During a similar timeframe, from 2014 to 2018, the proportion of affordable public universities in the United States decreased, and the affordability gap in higher education increased.

A steady decline in federal aid for students, accompanied by a steady rise in education costs, reveals a worrisome pattern — one that must be broken.

During his campaign, President Joe Biden assured voters he would work to alleviate student debt, and he should make good on his promise. The United States must prioritize public higher education, and that means providing adequate federal financial assistance to students in need.

If the United States can devote more than $700 billion to defense spending every year, the $30 billion per year needed to double the Pell Grant — providing thousands of bright, young, often underrepresented students with the opportunity to attend and graduate from college — should be a no-brainer.

Important, too, is actually admitting Pell Grant recipients to flagship state institutions. While the UC system leads the country in enrolling and retaining low-income students, UC Berkeley has historically ranked dead last among UC schools in the number of Pell Grant recipients relative to the student population. As UC Berkeley seeks to admit its most ethnically diverse freshman class in history, campus must ensure economic diversity is also prioritized.

Finally, when it comes to economic diversity, student success and retention are just as important as admissions. Continued support on UC campuses can mean the difference between academic success and struggle, graduation and early departure for some Pell Grant students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exposed and worsened a looming higher education affordability crisis — one that’s been years in the making. While by no means a silver bullet, doubling the Pell Grant is a necessary step in an even more necessary direction.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.